Richard North, 24/11/2020  

It is seven years since I wrote in the first draft of Flexcit that leaving the EU was a process, not an event, a sentiment repeated in the current edition, where I also write of my draft that "it provides a template for the next twenty or so years of our national development".

Never, ever, was it the case that Brexit was going to be a short-term process and the estimate of twenty years was optimistic. One only has to look at Switzerland to see that third country relations with the EU are ongoing, spanning not years but decades.

One almost despairs, therefore, when one reads the likes of this in the Telegraph, where Brussels correspondent James Crisp writes that "Brexit will drag on for years", as Brussels is reportedly considering asking for a 10-15-year review clause in the trade deal and fishing agreement.

We can hardly disagree when he writes that "Brexit has never been a finite process", as he states that "future governments will circle endlessly, repeating the same never-ending 'brexistential' dramas over sovereignty, nationhood and trade".

When he thus concludes that "Brussels has an almost limitless capacity for boredom, repetition and detail but British officials will have learnt from their baptism of fire in the UK's first trade negotiation in 40 years", and that "it is not for nothing that Michel Barnier, the EU chief negotiator, calls Brexit a 'school of patience'".

The only remarkable thing is that it seems to have taken Crisp so long to come to this conclusion, and that he – or anyone else for that matter – ever thought any different, especially those who thought we could sign up for an instant deal and be done with it.

Logically, it makes total sense that, having spent more than 40 years reaching the current state of integration with our EU neighbours, we were not going to unravel the arrangements in a hurry. And this is why it always made sense to go for the Efta/EEA option as a halfway house, giving us (and businesses) a chance to adapt.

The trouble is that the moment there is the slightest concession to reality, the media starts squealing in a most disagreeable way, as with the Mirror which reports the same news under the headline: "EU accused of wanting to pick apart a Brexit trade deal within a decade".

The media, however, cannot be held entirely to blame as its headlines reflect the response from the Johnson administration, as it is said to be "set to resist the attempt". Thus, we get Johnson's spokesman saying: "We want a simple, separate fisheries framework which reflects our right under international law".

That sounds seductively simple, and therein lies the problem. There are no simple solutions to complex problems – except, perhaps in the mind of the current prime minister. Given all the ramifications of the fishing issue – and the emotional connotations – a resolution was never going to be easy.

In some senses, therefore, the EU proposal seems quite neat, kicking the can down the road a sufficient distance to take the issue off the table for the time being, allowing the other, less contentious issues to be resolved.

Another of the EU's strategies is to insist on a single, overarching structure for any deal, rather than the UK preference for a series of stand-alone deals. There are merits, of course, to either option, which probably explains why there has been such a battle over which path to take.

From the UK perspective, stand-alone deals mean that we escape the "tyranny" of nothing is agreed until everything is agreed. We could, for instance, sign a deal on aviation without it being dependent on us reaching an agreement on fishing quotas. We also escape the Swiss "guillotine" trap, where default on one deal automatically terminates the others.

The EU, on the other hand, reasons that once a framework deal is agreed, with common governance structures such as dispute procedures, it is easier to administer and it is much simpler to plug in new sectors over time, allowing the relationship to mature and expand, with the minimum of disruption.

In this, though, the EU is not only looking at Brexit. It is looking at the long-term and its need to simplify the myriad of agreements with neighbouring states. It is very conscious that concessions to the UK, which take it in the wrong direction, could set precedents which are exploited in a way which would set back Brussels' long-term aspirations.

Through following the ins and outs of the EU-UK negotiations over the years, it does not seem to me that the UK is always (or ever) aware of the constraints on the EU. The UK is looking at a deal from its own perspective, but Brussels must always be looking over its shoulder to see how any agreement inter-reacts with the other deals it has made – as well as its impact on existing members.

This is why May's original plan for a "deep and special partnership", which was to be of "greater scope and ambition than any such agreement before" – written into her Article 50 letter - was never going to fly.

Less than a month after that letter, Merkel was addressing the Bundestag, emphasising the UK, as a third country, "cannot and will not enjoy the same rights or possibly be better off than a member of the European Union". Unfortunately, she added, "I have a feeling that some in the UK are still delusional about this".

Equally delusional is Johnson, calling for "nothing more complicated than a Canada-style relationship", evidently without the first idea of what that agreement actually entails. Although ostensibly asking for less than May, he is offering far fewer concessions than Canada, while expecting more from the deal. This also isn't going to fly.

Given Johnson's declared stance, on fishing and other matters, it is hard to see how an agreement can actually be reached. Nonetheless, after his self-isolation, Barnier is rejoining the talks and remains optimistic that a deal can be reached. But how much of that is simply part of the blame-avoidance strategy, it is hard to tell.

However, Taoiseach Micheál Martin, is also optimistic, taking the view that an outline of a Brexit deal could be reached by the end of this week, despite both sides still complaining that "fundamental differences" remain.

One thing for sure, with the positive news about Covid-19 vaccines, there is hope of an end in sight for the UK epidemic, possibly as early as spring. This is good news and bad news for Johnson. The good news is that it gives the economy – which has proved remarkably resilient - a chance to recover.

The bad news is that Covid will not necessarily provide cover, to conceal the adverse economic effects of a no-deal Brexit. And, with the Bank of England governor warning that the cost of a no-deal scenario would be bigger in the long term than the damage caused by Covid-19.

Personally, I am always a little suspicious of long-term economic forecasts, which have a tendency to be wrong – and especially in this case as there are too many imponderables. But the potential political effect of this warning rather puts Johnson on the line. If the prime minister does opt for a no-deal, and the projections are even half-way correct, the damage to his diminishing credibility could be terminal.

Bearing in mind that the effects will not be evenly spread – as with rumours of a shut-down of the Nissan plant in Sunderland (since denied) – the electoral impact for the Tories might be disproportionate if it turns the newly-acquired "Red Wall" seats.

Nothing quite focuses Tory minds like the prospect of losing an election and while there are some years to run before we go to the polls, nervous MPs could still exert an influence on No 10.

Yet, for all that, we're still none the wiser as to what the immediate future might bring. Johnson is quite capable of blowing it at the last minute, but he is equally capable of conceding a disastrous agreement and going to the country telling everybody how "fantastic" it is. The man is truly that much of a moron.

So, as always, we wait and wait. They also serve who stand and wait, we used to be told. There may not be a lot of serving going on these days, but there is certainly a lot of waiting, especially when it comes to roadside toilets.

Also published on Turbulent Times.

comments powered by Disqus

Log in

Sign THA

The Many, Not the Few